As part of the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN), I recently had the pleasure of listening to women from very different personal and professional backgrounds discuss their role in advancing environmental justice in the Twin Cities. So much was covered in such a short period of time – from raising awareness about the toxic chemicals in skin whitening products (Amira Adawe), to fighting for unbiased policies surrounding clean energy and transportation (Dr. Laalitha Surapaneni), energy access equity (Janiece Watts), and reconnecting underserved populations back to nature through urban gardening (Catherine Fleming). And that is just scratching the surface; these women do it all!
Listening to stories of passion and commitment to environmental justice from these accomplished women inspired my own self-reflection. What is my role in environmental justice? As a marketing specialist in environmental services, what part can I play to advance this mission? I’ve always loved the outdoors. From a pretty early age, I knew I wanted to devote my life to leaving this earth better than it was before for future generations to enjoy. As a professional who provides marketing support for environmental consultants, I assumed I was fulfilling my duties. But it goes deeper than that…
Acknowledge the similarities and understand the differences. There’s no doubt that the health of the environment affects us all. It’s not a gender thing, or a race thing, or an ethnicity thing– it’s a human thing. As human occupants of this planet, we’re all in this together! Whether we like it or not. However, it’s important to understand how (and why) environmental issues disproportionately affect people of a different color, gender, or ethnic background. It’s an undeniable fact, so let’s figure out why, and how we can make it better.
Listen closely to all voices. Acknowledging our connection to each other and the earth, as well as understanding how environmental policy and planning decisions affect different groups is the first step. Listening closely to the voices of all community members is the next. People don’t want to be told what they need, they want to be heard. When important decisions about our environment are being made, we need to invite everyone to the table to ensure the impacts are equally beneficial. Because fairness is the essence of justice.
Form partnerships. Considering things like climate change affect everyone, it’s very important we collect as many allies as possible–male, female, black, or white, Indian or Chinese. You name it. Not only to fight for environmental justice, but human justice. A recurring theme I heard from these women, who were all women of color, was that they are constantly asked why they do what they do because it’s a “white thing.” That really shocked me. I’ve always spent so much time focusing on our similarities as earthlings as it relates to the environmental work I do. I’ll even go as far as saying that I blindly assumed environmental decisions, whether bad or good, often impact people in relatively the same way. But if you look around, that is clearly not the case. Because of this, it’s imperative we connect and partner with those who are different from us, regardless of what we are fighting for, to bring in fresh perspectives. This is the foundation to building a greater good and if we don’t step out of our comfort zone and remove unconscious bias, we will never truly advance as humans or stewards of the planet.
Understand where we fit in the solution. Of course, these principals can and should extend beyond your professional life; it’s our duty as good human beings. But it’s also important to recognize that we all bring something to the table both personally and professionally. It’s not a matter of what you do for a living, but how you use that position to advance equity on all fronts. Even though I am not the public outreach specialist informing community members about how an environmental project may impact their lives, or the biologist out in the field collecting the required data to help our clients make a sound planning decision, I am helping put the right people, in front of the right clients, to work on transformative projects that impact communities in varying ways. Whether it is through the content I develop or asking our experts those tough environmental justice questions as we consider a project, I will not only be deeply thinking about how our projects affect all community members but whether our messaging is a clear reflection that we are partners who listen carefully. At the end of the day, we will all be impacted by the way we treat each other and the environment–whether we pay for it, our children, or our children’s children.
Interested in learning more from the panelists?
- Moderator: Ms. Kelly Meza Prado. Recently named a Rotary Global Scholar, Ms. Meza Prado is a research manager at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs leading research work that fuses topics of water and equity in the US and internationally. Connect with Kelly via LinkedIn.
- Amira Adawe, Executive Director, The Beautywell Project. Learn more about her work with Beautywell
- Catherine Fleming, CEO at Business Direct LLC, Treasurer & VP of Marketing, Project Sweetie Pie, City of Minneapolis Green Zone Task Force, Environmental Justice Coordinating Council. Connect via LinkedIn.
- Dr. Laalitha Surapaneni, Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of Minnesota, Follow via Twitter @LaaliMD
- Janiece Watts, Policy Associate, Energy Access and Equity, FreshEnergy. Connect via LinkedIn
Janiece Watts – Fresh Energy
Janiece is an environmental justice organizer working in community engagement on issues of zero waste, air quality, health and clean energy. Her work has spanned coalition building, outreach, policy shaping and political action. Janiece is also a board member of Headwaters Foundation for Justice.
Dr. Vishnu Laalitha Surapaneni – University of Minnesota
Laalitha is a medical physician and currently works as an assistant professor in the department of general internal medicine at the University of Minnesota. She is an academic activist, a board member of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, a member on the steering committee for 100% Minnesota campaign and a member of Health Professionals for Healthy Climate. Originally from India, Laalitha, has a medical degree with a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Amira has more than 14 years working with local, state and federal government on issues of public health. Most recently, Amira was a Manager at Minnesota Children’s Cabinet Office of Governor Mark Dayton, where she worked on early childhood in all policies and systems using an equity lens. She is a public health researcher and her research interests include women and children’s health in the areas of access to health care, skin-lightening practices, and mercury exposures. Amira is the founder, Executive Director of The Beautywell Project, an initiative to combat the skin-lightening practices and chemical exposures in the immigrant and refugee communities in Minnesota.
Catherine has been an IT professional, a business owner, a real estate developer, a social worker, a mother, a wife and a social and economic activist in some form or fashion, for most of her life. Although a native of Georgia, Catherine now considers Minnesota her home. Her involvement with the environment and climate change initially came via her relationship with Project Sweetie Pie, a grass-roots organization focused on urban farming, youth development and access to healthy foods for all. Catherine sits on or is a member of many environmental groups. She is the District D Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commissioner via the Met Council and Co-Chair of the Blue Line light rail extension. Catherine is a proud northside Minneapolis resident.